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New research says Twitter has a gender bias

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In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel published a strip from her series Dykes To Watch Out For with two characters talking about which movie they wanted to see. One of them says she has just one requirement: The movie has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. The strip highlighted the male bias in popular entertainment so well that culture critics began using it as a standard to judge whether movies are female-friendly, calling it the “Bechdel Test.” It’s now used as part of Sweden’s moving rating system.

Although it’s in Hollywood’s best interest to produce films with diverse roles for women, many studio films, especially summer blockbusters and action movies, continue to fail the Bechdel Test. Women only make up 30 percent of speaking roles in films, and critics and activists continue to look for ways to prod producers into developing movies with deeper female stories.

And it’s not just movies that show gender bias. According to researchers at ETH Zurich, Twitter conversations between men also fail the Bechdel test.

A research team developed a variation on the Bechdel test that measures whether conversations between two or more people of the same gender features references to people of another gender. They looked at over 2 million Twitter conversations (and a few thousand Myspace conversations, for good measure) and determined that the gender bias isn’t confined to the big screen.

The team discovered that men are substantially less likely to talk to each about women than women are likely to talk to each other about men. Men who are fathers tended to talk about women less frequently than men who weren’t fathers, while male students bucked the overall trend and did not demonstrate a gender bias.

They also discovered that women are 30 percent more likely than men to share content on Twitter about movies that have passed the Bechdel Test. “This indicates that female Twitter users are attracted to movies in which women are shown less dependent on men, but also that the audiences might be starting to be aware of the results of the Bechdel test itself,” the researchers wrote.

It is a step too far to assume that there is something inherent in Twitter’s design causing this imbalance. The researchers go on to recognize that ingrained social patterns of female dependence may also cause the issue, but they still imply Twitter might be able to make a design change that would curb the gender imbalance. I can’t imagine what that would be.

The smaller test group of conversations on Myspace didn’t have the same gender bias as those on Twitter, leaving us with two questions: Why are men more likely to reference women on Myspace than Twitter? And... people are still talking on Myspace?

H/T IBN Live | Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III